The display windows at ModSock, downtown Bellingham’s sock store at 1500 Cornwall Ave., stick out 10 feet from the store’s front door, creating a glass hallway that in September was covered in a rainbow made with 325 pairs of colorful socks. Like the business, the display is constantly evolving.
The day after Halloween, as store employee Lindsey Frazier removed plastic spiders and spiderwebs from a Halloween-themed window display, Uraina Shaklee, store founder and owner, was in the store’s back room with 135 boxes containing 22,000 pairs of socks.
Shaklee opened her retail store, which sells quirky and colorful socks in an array of patterns, textures, and lengths, in 2011. In 2013, she started designing socks and created her own brand — also called ModSock — that’s carried in about 80 stores, mostly on the West Coast. Shaklee’s second line of ModSock socks — the 135 boxes in the store’s back room, is on its way to stores for the holiday season.
Two months earlier, while preparing to spend most of her bank account on getting the socks manufactured, Shaklee was nervous.
Part of her nervousness is self-imposed, Shaklee said.
“I want to raise the bar,” she said. “I don’t want to produce something that’s not up to the quality I’ve already set.”
When Shaklee got her first shipment of ModSock socks, she was so nervous about how they would look, she had someone else open the packages for her.
Shaklee’s sock business began in a failing antique and art store in Ellicotville, New York, a ski resort town. Shaklee opened the store, called the Purple Doorknob, in 2009. She immediately knew antiques wouldn’t pay the bills, she said.
Most of her customers were tourists, and antiques were too expensive and difficult for them to take home. A year in, Shaklee, a devotee of striped Pippi Longstocking socks, got an idea for a product that tourists could buy: socks.
“The switch happened during the economic downturn. I heard someone say people will never stop buying haircuts and beer, but I feel like socks also qualify,” Shaklee said. “People don’t have to spend a long time thinking about their willingness to spend $10 on a pair of socks they’re going to wear or give as a gift. If you think about the cost per wear or the cost per smile, it’s a pretty good deal.”
Shaklee came to Bellingham in 2011 after her husband, who works at ConocoPhillips, got transferred.
They moved to town in late fall and Shaklee opened her second sock store two weeks after driving across the country.
“Before we even had furniture at our house, the store was open,” Shaklee said. “I didn’t want to pass up the holidays. A lot of time you’re only really profiting in those last months of the year. To say the holiday season matters is an understatement — it is critical.”
Shaklee said her transition into the downtown business community was smoothed by her husband’s cousin, Django Bohren.
At the time, Bohren owned Merch Bot, a novelty toy store that closed in 2013.
“Merch Bot was pretty established at the time when they decided to open so I was able to help her out with the eccentricities of running a business downtown,” Bohren said. “It takes some introductions to become a fast friend of the downtown businesses.”
Shaklee’s commitment to socks impressed Bohren, who said if he ran the store, he would have “polluted” it with other products.
“It’s very focused. I think choosing the right product is a big part of making a business like that work,” Bohren said. “She just throws herself into whatever she’s working on and it works really well. “
ModSock took off fast. Bohren said the store’s sales outpaced Merch Bot’s within a year.
“People have really embraced the store,” Shaklee said. “I think Bellingham likes to show its personality and socks are a way to do that.”
When Shaklee started selling unique socks, most of the brands she carried were small and some of them were just rolling out their first lines. Now, many of them have grown and are more widely available. Even big-box stores are starting to carry more interesting socks.
Shaklee started designing her own brand in 2013 because she likes drawing designs and she wanted to have a unique product.
“I like the idea of anything being possible on socks,” Shaklee said. “There are certain themes I wanted to see on socks and I enjoy the creative process.”
Shaklee’s second order of her wholesale line was much bigger than the first, with 16 new styles, in addition to second runs of many of the 12 original styles. She sent socks to about 80 wholesalers — the first line went to about 30 — and she’s hoping to open accounts on the East Coast.
“That is the nature of business. You evolve or you die.” Shaklee said. “I see a need, not at this moment necessarily but in the future, to have that income channel to continue to be a business.”
Because of the amount of socks in the new line, Shaklee needed to have them made at two different factories.
Her socks are manufactured in South Korea. Shaklee would prefer to have them made in the U.S., but U.S. manufacturers don’t have knitting machines with enough needles to make her intricate designs, she said. So communication can be difficult, and shipping samples back and forth takes time.
Shaklee liked the factory’s samples for the second line and by the time the order finally arrived she wasn’t nervous, she said. She even opened the boxes herself.
Shaklee sliced through the packing tape and inspected the most complicated pair in the line first — a pair of light blue socks with a wood grain pattern. One sock has an owl with outstretched wings on it, and the other sock has two owls huddled together on a tree branch. They looked how she expected. Surrounded by 22,000 pairs of socks, Shaklee was another step ahead of the competition.